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It was at a hotel in Lancaster during that same trip that my par-

ents bought me a volume of American travel articles written in


easy Readers Digest style, suited to my age. One story was about a
family driving west and stopping for breakfast at a diner somewhere in Nebraska perhaps, on the Great Plains (or the Great
American Desert as it was once known), anticipating the sight of
the Rocky Mountains, where they were headed. You have to earn
the Rockies, the father says to his wife and children, in my piercing if inaccurate childhood recollection of the story, by driving
across the flat Midwest and Plains. Perhaps it was meet the challenge of the Rockies. In any case, earn the Rockies is a phrase that has
stayed with me my whole life. It sums up Americas continental
geography, the continent that Lincoln united and realized, and the
significance of the Rocky Mountains as a geographical fact that
should only be encountered by first crossing the Eastern Seaboard,
the Middle West, and the Great American Desert, for that was the
way that they were encountered in all their sudden and terrifying

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magnificence by European settlers and pathfinders, those who


could not have known what exactly lay over the horizon.
Throughout my childhood I yearned to see mountains higher
than the Appalachians. As a family, we never left the eastern states.
The Rockies were just too far, and my parents simply lacked the
means, though my father talked about them often. The phrase earn
the Rockies helped spur me to travel, something also instilled in me
by my father since I can remember.
My mother and father took me on that trip through Pennsylvania in 1962. Alaska and Hawaii had only recently been admitted to
the Union. The United States back then, for a while yet, still
thought of itself as only a continental nation, stretching, according
to both the song and the clich, from sea to shining sea. To this day,
Alaskans refer to the rest of the country as the Lower 48, meaning the contiguous forty-eight states that constitute the temperate
zone of North America. Arizona was the last of the Lower 48, admitted to the Union only in 1912, a little closer in time to that trip
through Pennsylvania than that trip through Pennsylvania was to
the moment at which I write.
America was a different country then, vaster and emptier. Valley Forge was not in the suburbs of Greater Philadelphia as it is
now, nor Fredericksburg near the suburbs of Greater Washington,
D.C. Food was more distinctivewith far fewer chain restaurants
and grits widespread in eating facilities just south of the nations
capital. People drove and rode buses, or hitchhiked across
Americaas I did in the summer of 1970much more often than
they flew. The Interstate Highway System was spanking new, and
thus the Pennsylvania Turnpike and New York State Thruway con-

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stituted exotic experiences, with rest stops offering sit-down dining with waiters and waitresses. Those magical highways could
transport you from the Atlantic Seaboard all the way to the very
rim of the Midwest! The East Coast was much more of an adventure then than it is now. And there were few crowds anywhere.
It had its dark side, though. I remember stopping for lunch with
my parents at a restaurant called Lowerys in Tappahannock, Virginia. It was the spring of 1964, just a few months before the Civil
Rights Act, and we were returning north from a visit to the Yorktown Battlefield. There was a sign at the entrance as we opened the
door: Whites Only. I saw my parents look uneasily at each other,
something that communicated fear to an eleven-year-old boy. We
went inside, ate quietly, and noticed everyone glancing at us. It was
clear that we were not locals and therefore not entirely welcome.
Those trips were the gemstones of my childhood. It is in the
midst of recalling them that I cherish the memory of my parents
the most. Returning from those trips I was able to see, as though a
shocked outsider, the grainy, almost black-and-white surroundings
of our home in Queens: the sooty fire escape and other blockhouse
apartments were the only view from the stifling kitchen where we
ate. Because of the clash between where we had been and where we
lived, those early travels, I believe, burdened me with something I
was never entirely comfortable with: a cruel objectivity. In the
morning we had been at Wheatland seeing the feast of glittering
greenery outside James Buchanans mansion; that same night we
were back in our apartment, hearing the yelling of our neighbors in
other apartments. Seeing the wider world, if only a glimpse of it,

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had come with a price. I learned early that comparison is painful


and not always polite, but it is at the root of all serious analysis.
My father was a truck driver with a high school education who
listened to classical music on WQXR while breezing through the
New York Times Sunday and weekday crossword puzzles. He had a
small record collection that included the patriotic band music of
John Philip Sousa and the hits of Al Jolson, mixed with a little Stephen Foster. It was music that took you from the mid-nineteenth
century to the first decades of the twentieth, telegraphing the
countrys latent dynamism as it crept toward World War II. There
was also in this singular and awkward repertoire the haunting
twangs of Ferde Grofs Grand Canyon Suite from 1931, with their
hopeful intimations of travel. In the 1960s, my father was decades
behind his time. As I grew into middle age, I realized how grateful
I was for it.
In the spring of 1961, my father took my family, including my
older brother and a cousin, on a trip to Washington, D.C. It was
particularly memorable because on the second night he got us tickets to hear the Marine Band play Sousa at Constitution Hall. Between such transformative momentsWheatland, the Marine
Bandwas the weeping undertow of my childhood: every late afternoon, my father, hunched over the unmade bed that was visible
from the windows of apartment houses directly across, tying the
laces on his work boots, lost briefly in a trance, preparing for another night of driving in the partial wasteland of Brooklyn. Facing
him in the bedroom was his small collection of books, two shelves
actually. I remember The Conquest of Everest by Sir John Hunt (1954),

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Beyond the High Himalayas by William O. Douglas (1952), Jefferson the


Virginian by Dumas Malone (1948), and one he had just bought,
and that he anticipated reading: Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck (1962).
In the 1930s my father had spent his twenties riding railway
cars around the United States, earning a living as a horse-racing
tout in forty-three of the lower forty-eight states. After a big
score he would check into a first-class hotel, a large cigar in hand:
twenty-four hours later, he would be living a hobos existence like
so many others in the 1930s. He filled me with stories of his escapades in Depression-era America, and of the predominant image
of a still-pastoral and nave nation, where the scams he ran were
relatively innocent and people bought you a meal when you were
down and out. I have a picture of him, powerful in the way of a
photo negative, with a jacket and tie and sharp fedora, wearing a
confident smile with which I could never associate him when I was
a child, taken at the Texas State Fair in Dallas: the year 1933 emblazoned above him.
Beulah Park (Columbus, Ohio), Arlington Downs (Dallas
Fort Worth), Churchill Downs, where he watched Bold Venture
win the Kentucky Derby in 1936my father knew literally every
racetrack in the country. There were Houston and New Orleans in
the winter of 193334; by freight train (the Union Pacific) from
Pittsburgh to Chicago to Las Vegas the following year; sick, broke,
back on his feet. It was an epic existence, however aimless, seedy,
and pathetic at the edges, as well as full of exaggeration in the telling.
My fathers last memory of travel was in 1942. He had just com-

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pleted basic training at Fort Polk, Louisiana, and was heading north
on a troop train for dispatch to Europe, where he would serve in
the U.S. Army Eighth Air Force in England. At a rail junction near
Cairo, Illinois, the sun was setting in rich colors over the prairie.
Other trains were then converging from several tracks onto a single line that would take the troops to points along the East Coast,
where ships to Europe awaited. Across a wide arc, the only thing he
saw were trains and more trains, with soldiers looking out through
every window as each train curved toward the others against a flat
and limitless landscape lit red by the sun. Just looking at that
scene, thats the moment when I knew we were going to win the
war, he said to me, smiling briefly at the recollection as he completed tying his shoelaces.
My first map of the United States was composed of my fathers
images. It was a landscape full of lessons and marvels that I desperately wanted to experience firsthand. The flat prairie was something I never imagined as dull but, rather, as an immense and
magnificent prelude to something grander. I thank my father for
that. And thus I would make several journeys from coast to coast:
once in my late teens, hitchhiking, fueled with curiosity, obsessed
with just seeing the West; then as a middle-aged journalist, writing
about social, regional, and environmental issues; and now, finally, in
my middle sixties, somewhat chastened by international events,
hoping to learn something about Americas place in the world by
simply looking at the country around me.
Between those first and second trips I discovered an appropriate literary guide, a guide who saw intangibles written into the
landscape similar to the ones my father had. Now I must reac-

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quaint myself with his books in order to prepare for this next and
likely final trip. Understanding Americas situation can be a matter
of rediscovering what is vital, yet forgotten; what is commonplace,
yet overlooked. And with such books in hand, the American landscape itself beckons, underneath the convenient deceptions of the
jet age. For the answers to our dilemmas overseas lie within the
continent itself.

From the Book, EARNING THE ROCKIES by Robert D. Kaplan. Copyright 2017 by
Robert D. Kaplan. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of The
Random House Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved.